Americas Rugby News 04.19.18
MLR Season Preview – Houston SaberCats
The busiest team in Major League Rugby this year is the Houston SaberCats. An entirely new franchise built from scratch, they have already gone through a name change (previously the Strikers) and will move to a new home for their season opener after enjoying a nine-week stay at Constellation Field.
Their approach to squad composition is also worth noting. There are a number of international players of various levels but there’s a fair chance they won’t lose any during the June test window. That continuity should prove an advantage throughout the season.
Team cohesion aside, this is a well constructed side with a large squad and depth at almost every position. Their pack will be formidable, in particular the tight five where there are multiple options and no lack of size. Charlie Hewitt and Justin Allen are locks with genuine international size and even the back row looks meaty and physical.
Key to their organization is their quality at halfback. Connor Murphy and Sam Windsor have played a lot of minutes together by now and should prove one of the best combinations on the league. Both have invaluable professional experience overseas and will raise standards across the team.
If there’s one thing this team has in spades it’s top class finishers. There is a frightening amount of firepower out wide with Alex Elkins, Malacchi Esdale, Zach Pangelinan, and the Fijian flyers Osea Kolinisau and Josua Vici. Houston will put points on the board, there’s no question of that.
Where there might be a question is on defense. The Cats can strike from anywhere but they have also conceded a fair amount of points in the preseason, particularly in the final quarter. Houston need to prove they are an 80-minute team to hold on to their contender status.
While the starting duo of Murphy and Windsor are quality, their backup is untested at this level. Injuries to either player would be a big blow to the team. Scottish-born Kieran Farmer is highly rated but getting thrown into a starting position at just 19 years old would be a big ask.
The SaberCats are one of the smaller teams in the midfield. Conor Mills will be a source of strength and go-forward at inside center, with Kolinisau and Esdale the primary options outside him. How they cope defensively against some of the heavyweights around the league will be a key barometer of success.
Goodbye Sugar Land, hello Houston. With a new stadium set to be built in time for the 2019 season, the SaberCats will call Dyer Stadium home for 2018. It’s an older facility typically used for high school football with a grass surface. The 6,000 capacity is the highest in the league, a mark matched only by San Diego’s Torero Stadium.
Former Ireland international prop Justin Fitzpatrick is the man with the plan in Houston. He took the reins after four years with the Seattle Saracens, during which time he was also an assistant coach for the Eagles under Mike Tolkin. The 44-year-old also played professionally for London Irish, Castres, and Ulster. His first choice flyhalf Sam Windsor is also an assistant coach.
A two-time Collegiate All-American, former captain of BYU, and capped five times by the Eagles. Kyle Sumsion is a no-nonsense sort of flanker who leads by example. He heads up a strong loose forward contingent that also features 2015 World Cup selection Matt Trouville. Sumsion is most comfortable on the blindside flank where his heavy-hitting style fits in nicely.
The SaberCats are richly-stocked in the front row with several representative players. At the top of the heap is Adam Macklin, an Ireland age-grade international and Ulster first team regular whose European career fizzled out in large part due to a series of injuries. He looks to be fit and firing in Houston and with his ability to play both sides of the scrum with be a major contributor at the set piece.
Windsor is the experienced head in the halfbacks and Connor Murphy the cheeky youngster. The London Irish academy graduate has a good mix of skills and both the speed and strength to take chances if the post defense gets lazy. Look for him to catch teams off-guard regularly with his quick-tap game.
He isn’t a household name yet but give it a few weeks and Josua Vici (pronounced Vee-thee) will be. The softly-spoken Fijian lets his rugby do the talking and he’s been nothing short of sensational in the preseason, scoring 12 tries in only 11 games in the preseason. A potent mix of power and speed, get him the ball and good things are bound to happen.
ONE TO WATCH
It’s easy to pick out Justin Allen from a crowd. At 6’10” (2.08m) he is the tallest player in the league, but he’s not just another lamppost with legs. This fella can get around the pitch. Born in Ireland, Allen was a High School All-American and the Eagles selectors will be keen to have a look at the 22-year-old up close given his unique proportions. He might not be a Vici’s level but Allen knows his way to the tryline, touching down four times in the preseason. Not bad for a second row.
There will be no ring-rust from these Cats, they will be ready to rock from the opening whistle on Saturday. That extreme level of preparation puts them ahead of the game and as long as they don’t run out of steam in the later stage of the regular season they will be a tough team to beat. It’s hard to imagine the Semi Finals without them. A spot in the final looks a realistic target.
A detailed roster and fixture list can be seen here.
Prepare to rethink everything you thought you knew about the drive-in experience!
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